Karen Posner of Sylvania Township discovered the serene pleasure of bead play in April when she attended a class at a local shop with women from her temple.
“Artistic” is not a word she would have applied to herself, but the black-and-white necklace she assembled that night, inspired by something she had seen on the Academy Awards telecast, reaped compliments.
A few months later, she was in Tiffany's jewelry store in Chicago and a saleswoman admired another necklace she had made. It had black, silver, gold, and clear beads crocheted on silver wire. The saleswoman ordered two for herself.
“It's relaxing. It's therapy,” said Ms. Posner, 55, a substitute teacher.
An estimated 6.6 million people are using beads for arts and crafts, and the number is growing, said Don Meyer, director of consumer and public relations for the Hobby Industry Association in Elmwood Park, N.J.
People are making all manner of jewelry, embellishing clothing and even creating religious items using beads from around the world. Materials include glass, acrylic, ceramic, wood, clay, and amber, as well as semi-precious stones, charms, and silver. They're creating whimsical watchbands, knitting with them, knotting beads into macrame, and wrapping them with copper, gold, and sterling silver wire. Sparkling Swarovski crystal beads are even showing up in monograms on high-end intimate apparel.
Ms. Posner, 55, has crafted custom necklaces and bracelets for friends: One wanted ocean colors, another requested something in the same deep purple that appeared on her computer's screen saver. Yet another asked for a stretchy bracelet loaded with flat silver-plated beads from Japan interspersed with fresh-water pearls.
Even the making of beads, particularly from glass or polymer clay, has become a popular pastime. (See related article on Page 3.)
In the fast-paced, cyberized 21st century, the ancient art of beading is enjoying what may be its greatest renaissance. Measured in millimeters and grams, its vocabulary includes terms such as hanks and findings.
The appeal of beadwork is that it's inexpensive to begin, it can be done almost anywhere, and it doesn't require much space. “And it's really hard to make anything ugly with beads,” said Alice Korach, founder and editor of Bead & Button magazine.
Her 9-year-old publication grew by 4 to 5 percent annually until 1999, when circulation skyrocketed. Now nearly 200 pages, circulation increased 33 percent this year, and its August issue sold 136,000 copies, said Ms. Korach. She estimates the number of bead stores has doubled in the last decade to more than 1,000.
When one of her editors was planning her wedding, Ms. Korach designed an intricate wedding bouquet, and the staff beaded its flowers for Cheryl Grosjean Phelan, a former Toledoan and 1990 St. Ursula Academy graduate. And Ms. Phelan, of Milwaukee, made necklaces, bracelets, and earrings for her bridesmaids.
Austrian and Czech glass beads sell as fast as stores can stock them. There are satin-finished and fire-polished beads, acrylic “miracle” beads with rich sheen, and ceramic animal beads from Peru. Especially popular are “mother” bracelets: square silver beads with letters linked together to spell out a child's name and accented by crystal beads in birthstone colors.
Bead stores, usually women-owned, often create an inviting atmosphere, with toys for small children to play with and tables where parents and older kids can assemble jewelry on the spot with help from the staff. Inexpensive one-session classes that provide the instant gratification of finishing a piece of jewelry in a few hours fill quickly. This fall, the Meant to Bead shop on West Central Avenue offered 25 classes, each with multiple sessions and aimed at varying skill levels.
“Beads are such a universal material object that has really followed the human story since the beginning of society,” said Susan Fitzgerald, director of the Bead Museum in Glendale, Ariz. With more than 100,000 beads in its collection, the museum in suburban Phoenix has dozens of classes. Its recently expanded store had 10,000 to 15,000 customers last year.
Medical assistant Karen Roberson came across bead-making when she entered an exam room at her office and found the patient working with beads while waiting for the doctor.
“It looked so interesting,” said Ms. Roberson, of East Toledo. Expecting to be laid up with foot surgery last summer, she bought beading materials.
“I wear a lot of odd-colored clothing - greens, pinks, reds, maroons, different yellows - and I wanted jewelry to match my outfits,” said Ms. Roberson, 48.
Her first project was stringing white and blue beads and crocheting them into a necklace and bracelet. It complemented a navy dress she wore to sing in a concert. She beads on her lunch period, in bed while watching television, and while waiting for her granddaughter.
South Toledo artist Ann-Marie Searle teaches bead jewelry at several places, demonstrating off-loom-weaving techniques such as brick, peyote, and Ndebele stitches. Woven bead jewelry can be labor intensive, and her bracelets can sell for as much as $250.
The first beads, thought to be about 40,000 years old, were fashioned from ostrich-egg shells and marine shells, said Peter Francis, Jr., director of the Center for Bead Research in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“This was at a point when humans started to eat faster game,” said Mr. Francis. The connection? The first bead-wearers may have been sending a message to their neighbors: We're smarter than you are because we use traps and nets to catch animals, he said.
Beads have been used for religious ritual, in trade and as currency, and as mnemonic devices to keep track of time and events. Explorers Lewis and Clark carried 33 pounds of beads to trade for supplies on their expedition west. And Manhattan is said to have been purchased in 1626 from Native Americans by the Dutch for colorful glass beads.
Teenagers work beads into hemp twine, which they weave into macrame necklaces, bracelets, and belts.
Lindsay Sullivan and her friend, Katelyn Ammons, make beaded necklaces and bracelets with hemp as well as with memory wire, which retains its curved shape. The girls are eighth-graders at St. Patrick of Heatherdowns School.
“We've sold a lot in the neighborhood,” said Lindsay, 13. She spends half her earnings on supplies and the rest on whatever she pleases.
Beth Jackson of Palmyra does cross-stitch but recently made a beaded amulet-bag necklace with a patriotic design.
After Linda Randall of Findlay made a beaded bracelet for her 8-year-old granddaughter's birthday, her 5-year-old grandson clamored for one. Ms. Randall recently purchased small alligator-shaped beads to make him a rugged necklace.
Jan Poll uses crystal, lapis, jade, sterling, turquoise, and gold-filled beads as well as wire in her jewelry.
She taught beaded knitting when she owned the Village Knit Shop. “When I started it was with tiny seed beads,” she said. After closing her store, she focused on beading. She's particularly taken with their brilliant colors. She's also studied glass-bead making. “And that's my next goal,” said Ms. Poll, 55, of West Toledo.
For some, beads have a spiritual purpose. Prayer beads help a person to focus, said Jane Boone, 47. “It gets your hand and your mind working together,” she said.
She began beading with her mother, Jean Boone, 73, after they read about Anglican prayer beads, which have four sets of seven beads. Friends asked them to make Catholic rosaries, which have five sets of 10 beads.
The Boones, of West Toledo, often use semi-precious stones such as green adventurine, amethyst, and tiger-eye. They work with pearls and crystals, and olive-wood crosses made by Palestinian Christians.
After Jean Boone received a string of mesbaha, Muslim prayer beads, from her physician, she made him Anglican prayer beads. “I just love making them,” she said. “It's addictive."